The preseason prognosticators are not very high on 2017 Illini football. That’s been well documented.
However, given the much more favorable schedule that they have this season, one could reasonably expect the Illini to win more games this fall than they did last year. Chicago Bears legend Charles “Peanut” Tillman sees his former Head Coach Lovie Smith taking the program in the right direction this season.
“I definitely see improvement,” Tillman said during our exclusive conversation with him.
“It’s always hard for a coach to come in the first year, especially in college because there’s so many rules (as to) what you can and can’t do. In the (National Football) League you can spend as much time as you want, I think in college it’s 16 or 20 hours a week. In the league we can put that in in a day.”
We caught up with Peanut at the fifth annual Charles Tillman Celebrity Pro BOWLer Tournament at Kings Bowl.
Smith’s making the transition from the professional to the college ranks was one of the top 2016 Illini football preseason storylines, and it was a topic Tillman continued elaborated on.
“Coming from the pros, we have rules, but we can meet as much as we want, but in college they got class, you know, they put those handcuffs on you.”
“It’s his first year, a new system. I think definitely next year they will be well prepared or better prepared. I think they’ll do it, I think they’ll be alright.”
Tillman came to visit his former mentor and very close friend last summer during Illini football training camp. During the visit, he gave a pep talk to the team. He plans to return sometime next month, indicating that he spends a lot of his Fourth of July holidays in the central Illinois area.
It wasn’t until this interview that Tillman had seen the “Peanut Punch” contraption that Smith had installed in the Illini football team meeting room. Thus we showed him a picture while conducting this interview, and you can hear his reaction right there in the audio file below.
“Oh wow!” he exclaimed.
“So we had that in Chicago, I was just at the Buffalo Bills with Coach McDermott, they have the same thing in their team defensive room.
“It’s true it’s a mindset (forcing turnovers) you think about it (stripping/getting the ball) all the time.”
Tillman was well known during his playing career as one of the best ball hawks in the game. Smith is trying to instill that ball-hawking mentality in his program on the field. Off-the-field, the two men remain very close friends, like family.
Of course, you always root for, and expect your family to excel.
“Lovie Smith is a great man and I truly believe that he’s the guy to coach your kids when they go to college because he’ll teach your kids how to be men.”
“He’s got that good father figure in him, and I always want to see him succeed.”
Looking at 2017 Illini football on paper, the strength of the team is in the secondary. It’s the position group that possesses the most experience and depth, with Illinois returning three starters at the four positions.
“I think the strength of the team is always the secondary,” Tillman said when we brought this up.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a DB, I’m a little biased but I think it’s always like that.”
Illini football returns both starting safeties, Stanley Green on the strong side and Patrick Nelson at FS. They also return Jaylen Dunlap at cornerback, with Cameron Watkins expected to be the front-runner to start at the other position. Passing defense was by far the best major statistic for 2016 Illini football with 185.9 yards per game allowed ranking 17th nationally and third in the B1G.
Of course, the statistic is somewhat misleading given that their opponents ran so easily against the Illini, with Illinois ranking 105th nationally in run defense, 219.2 yards per game allowed.
Also, Illinois opponents were leading an overwhelming majority of the time, and thus were incentivized to run, not pass most of the time.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes to WGN CLTV and KOZN.